Let tabs be tabs

29 August 2006

Khoi Vinh has an interesting take on the design of tabs as a method of interaction. The piece regards the interface design of IM clients, namely Adium and iChat with their tabbed chat windows, but the part that resonated with me regarded the tabs.

In the eight years or so I’ve been doing design for the Web, I’ve seen–and admittedly have also personally attempted–more unnecessary re-inventions of the basic tab metaphor than I care to recount. For some reason, we designers find the basic visual construction of tabs (perhaps most prominently displayed at Amazon.com) to be dissatisfactory, but there’s no denying that they work. I’ve come to grips with this, and now I tell any designer I work with: let tabs be tabs.

Why do designers try and reinvent the wheel here? This is something I am also guilty of–I recently has cause to tweak a design to make the main navigation more obvious and clear-cut, so I designed it as tabs. Despite trying numerous ’sexy’ tab designs, I found the simpler they were, the better they worked. In terms of design, the tabs were probably the most simple elements on the page. They didn’t need to be complicated. Tabs are understood.

It’s strange, Khoi cited Amazon’s tabs as an example of tabs ‘that work’. I’m sure most UI designers would look at them and think “they could be spruced up a bit”. But I bet most designers would struggle to keep them as usable and, well, obvious as they currently are.

Tagged with Design, Usability

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